ROBERT COSTA: Hello, I’m Robert Costa and this is the Washington Week Podcast. Many federal agencies are shut down, but in the background of it all, the investigations into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election continue humming along.
To talk about where things stand with the special counsel and Congress, I’m joined by Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times; Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post; and Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News.
Paul Manafort was President Trump’s campaign chair during 2016. He pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators last year and now it turns out he shared political polling information and discussed policies related to the Russia-Ukraine relationship with a business associate with links to Russian intelligence. Manafort’s lawyers inadvertently redacted that information. And President Trump’s attorney general nominee William Barr, he’s scheduled to go before Congress pretty soon, next week, for confirmation hearings. There are reports Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on a separate front will leave once Barr is confirmed. Barr criticized the investigation in a memo to Rosenstein last year, calling it fatally misconceived. Rosenstein oversaw the Mueller investigation until recently amid all these attacks from President Trump.
Mark, when you think about the Manafort story – you’ve covered foreign policy – how significant is it to have a campaign chairman during the campaign of 2016 having these kind of backchannel discussions, however informal?
MARK LANDLER: Well, the holy grail of the Mueller investigation is whether you can demonstrate actual collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, the trading of information as part of some kind of quid pro quo. And until this material turned up, this unredacted material, it hadn’t been possible to make that connection with Paul Manafort. This actually gives you, as some people have written, a through line, it actually shows a potential conveyor belt for collusion. It’s not a smoking gun, but it’s probably the most solid evidence we’ve had to date.
And it also flies in the face of what Donald Trump has often said about Paul Manafort, which was he worked for me for a very short period of time. He’s always played down the significance of Paul Manafort in his campaign. This shows that potentially Manafort had a more central role vis-à-vis the Russians than we knew before. So I think on those two grounds, it’s a – it’s a very significant development in this story.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of significant developments, Yamiche, on Friday night, just after we finished our broadcast, The New York Times had a breaking story – our friend Michael Schmidt, a friend of the show, along with Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos of The New York Times – FBI opened inquiry into whether President Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia. This is around the firing of then FBI Director James Comey.
So you have the Manafort development, now a new development about the FBI having real concerns about President Trump’s relationship with Russia. Is the Russia investigation during the shutdown just suddenly creeping back or roaring back to the president’s agenda and to the forefront of his presidency?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think it’s something that’s always been there. I think that it never has gotten any less important, it’s just that the shutdown really is this thing that is really shutting Washington down so you can’t ignore it.
In this case, this New York Times reporting is incredible. This is the – this is the FBI saying that the sitting president of the United States might be working for Russia. There’s no way to under – there’s no way to overstate how important that would be. And the president, who already –
MR. COSTA: Investigated –
MS. ALCINDOR: Investigated I should say. The question is whether or not President Trump, one, what his reaction is going to be, because you know President Trump and you – and you cover him, he already has been talking about the FBI as something that was against him as the civil – as people that were not really for him, that didn’t want him to win. So he’s always been suspicious of that agency. So I think it’s going to be really important to look at that.
I should say, though, that when I go out of Washington and I talked to someone today, he said to me, well, why is it a big deal that you share polling with Russians? Who cares? Don’t you just share polling with other people? Isn’t it just – isn’t it just opposition research? That, to me, makes me feel like the people outside of Washington and maybe reporters and people who aren’t as well versed as Mark don’t understand the significance of that.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, on Capitol Hill, do we expect Senate Democrats and even some Republicans to have tough questions for Bill Barr when he has his confirmation hearings?
NANCY CORDES: Oh, no question. I mean, first and foremost, they’re going to want to know how he plans to oversee this investigation, if he’s going to tie Bob Mueller’s hands in any way, how he was selected by the president for this position in the first place. Did he promise the president that he would go easy on him? Those are the kinds of questions that he’s going to get.
And, you know, the fact that this – that this report is now out there is sort of another gift for Democrats who are going to remind people in that hearing and elsewhere that it comes in the same week that the president said he’d prefer to deal with China than to deal with Democratic leaders in Congress and when his secretary of state is going overseas and in the Middle East saying that the previous president did a terrible job and had the wrong policies. So it just adds to this Democratic argument that this is a president and a White House that appears to be more solicitous to foreign dictators than it is sometimes to leaders in Congress.
MR. COSTA: Phil, What’s the read inside of the West Wing on this Manafort story and the way this relationship’s becoming even more problematic perhaps for the president? Even if he’s not involved, it was happening during his campaign.
PHILIP RUCKER: It was happening during his campaign. And, look, the White House has tried to distance President Trump from Paul Manafort for some time now, even though Paul Manafort was chairman of the campaign at a very critical stretch at the end of the primaries and the beginning of the 2016 general election. But this is yet another datapoint into Manafort’s own web of foreign influences and the ways in which he, you know, used his position as the chairman of Trump’s campaign to benefit his personal business, which is this foreign consulting that he’s had for many, many years, including with Ukraine, including with Russian interests.
And there’s another important development, by the way, that’s going to be on the president’s radar certainly and that’s the testimony next month of Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer and fixer. He agreed this week to testify before House Democrats in an open congressional hearing. You can expect any number of questions on that.
MR. COSTA: Well, do we – I think we have the clip of Phil asking President Trump about Michael Cohen at the border trip on Thursday, if we can play that. Well, we’ll pull it up in a second. But you did ask – you did ask him about that.
MR. RUCKER: I did ask him about it right after the news broke on Thursday. And he – and I asked, you know, Mr. President, are you concerned about this testimony? And he said, no, I’m not concerned at all.
But come on, guys, we know he’s concerned about it.
MR. COSTA: Let’s show it real quick. Let’s show it real quick.
MR. RUCKER: (From video.) And there’s some big news about Michael Cohen, he’s agreed to testify before the House Democrats next month. What do you think of that? Are you worried?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’m not worried about it at all, no.
MR. COSTA: That turn of the head. (Laughter.)
MS. CORDES: Is there anything you didn’t talk to the president about this week?
MR. RUCKER: We had a lot of questions. It was a good opportunity.
MR. COSTA: I want to see a comedy on network TV or something about Phil and President Trump at the border. (Laughter.) Reading those pool reports, it was unbelievable.
MR. RUCKER: It was a busy day.
MR. COSTA: A busy day.
Speaking of Michael Cohen, how significant is – he’s pleaded guilty, he’s cooperated with Mueller, now he’s going to make his case public. Now, he has lied to Congress before.
MR. LANDLER: Yes.
MR. COSTA: So why are Democrats trying to bring him up? Is it just to make a point or –
MR. LANDLER: Well, remember, the significance of Michael Cohen in this whole story is that President Trump is an unindicted conspirator in the case that Michael Cohen’s involved in, these payoffs of money, which are a violation of federal campaign laws. So to the extent that you’re looking at the legal vulnerability of the president, there’s no greater vulnerability that we know of to date than his actions with Michael Cohen.
I will tell you, however, kind of an interesting contrarian view I heard from an ally of the president this week, which had to do with, should he declare a national emergency? And this person said to me I’d love to see him do that and have it blow up into a giant legal battle, because in a few months if this president faces impeachment, I’d rather have the debate about impeachment be over great issues of executive privilege and overreach than over hush money paid to a porn star. So there’s actually a line of thought that sees this as better for President Trump than going back to Michael Cohen and his story.
MS. ALCINDOR: You mentioned Stormy Daniels and she’s going to be going to that testimony. To me, as soon as I heard that, I thought this is going to be a spectacle that’s going to remind us of the days of James Comey when bars in D.C. had James Comey watch parties. This is going to be something that everyone in D.C. is going to be watching. And you can bet that Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti are going to be having all sorts of press avails to talk about all the things that Michael Cohen says.
So I think that for President Trump, maybe this might be beneficial because this is a president who thinks that, in some ways, all media is good media, that talking about Michael Cohen maybe is better than talking about the shutdown, talking about the Russia investigation. But I think that if you’re a Democrat looking at 2020, you’re also looking at this and saying, look, this is an opportunity to say the president is a mess, things are chaotic, and, look, now we have this new spectacle.
MR. RUCKER: There’s one important thing, too, about this Michael Cohen testimony, which is, in the courtroom, the questions asked of Cohen are limited to the scope of the – of the legal case. When he testifies before the congressional committee, those lawmakers can ask about literally anything. Michael Cohen has been Trump’s lawyer and fixer and personal confidante for a decade. They’re not only going to be asking questions about Stormy Daniels and the hush money payoffs, but they could ask about any number of topics.
MR. COSTA: Is there a limit on time? Could he be there for hours?
MR. RUCKER: I don’t know the parameters, but it could go on forever.
MS. CORDES: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, he has lied to Congress and he’ll get asked about that. But if you try to limit these hearings, you know, when you’re talking about this whole investigation, to people who only have a stellar track record of honesty, you would not be able to bring anyone before Congress because, you know, almost everybody has stretched the truth at some point in this investigation.
MR. COSTA: When you think about how the White House is handling all of this – I want to get Phil’s take on this, too – but you’ve got Pat Cipollone, the new White House counsel, he’s trying to hire a lot of people because it’s not just Michael Cohen he has to deal with, it’s the subpoenas that could be coming from House Democrats.
MS. ALCINDOR: The president is in need of lawyers and he’s been in need of topflight lawyers for a while. Rudy Giuliani has been the person who’s been a messaging person for him. In some ways, Rudy Giuliani is really good at that job.
MR. COSTA: I feel like you have him on speed dial, Yamiche. (Laughter.)
MS. ALCINDOR: We all have Rudy Giuliani on speed dial and you have to call him incessantly until he finally picks up. But at some point when he picks up, there’s going to be news coming out of him. But the question is, are there skilled lawyers who understand what’s before the president?
At PBS, we’ve – at PBS NewsHour I should say, we’ve talked to lawyers who the president wanted to hire, who said I don’t want any part of that. That’s incredible for a sitting president. So the people that are trying to get hired at the White House, the list is short. And I think that the president is realizing that and knows that he needs to beef up his legal department.
MR. COSTA: And that was a story by Carol Leonnig this week. What did you make of it?
MR. RUCKER: Yeah. You know, she reported that Pat Cipollone, the new White House counsel, has hired 17 new lawyers into the West Wing. That is not a full war room operation on the scale that we saw during Clinton impeachment of the late ’90s, but it is a significant improvement over what the White House had before – which the Trump White House had before, which was a lot of vacancies.
And there’s another development tonight, which is that Stefan Passantino, who is a former deputy White House counsel, worked under Don McGahn at the White House, is now working for the Trump Organization, the president’s private business, to help them manage the onslaught of Democratic congressional investigations. So they’re preparing for what’s to come.
MR. COSTA: Political and legal war ahead, we’ll be covering it all.
But that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you next time.